Less than 24 hours after being ousted as executive director of the NAACP, the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. convened the second session of a black leadership summit yesterday that included few of the national figures who attended the first gathering in June.
Dr. Chavis forged ahead with the meeting without the prestige and money afforded by his former post with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And it showed.
The conference is being held in a meeting room of West Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. Church, rather than at the NAACP national headquarters. Luminaries such as Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore and the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson were absent.
The most recognizeable figure among the 60 people present at the summit's introductory session yesterday afternoon was Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who sat by Dr. Chavis' side.
Many of the conferees, who passed a single wireless microphone around the U-shaped meeting tables to introduce themselves, were grass-roots community activists, about a quarter of them from Baltimore. That kind of turnout may not fit many people's definition of a summit, but Dr. Chavis betrayed no disappointment in the gathering.
"[We are here to concentrate], like a laser if you will, on the conditions of our people," Dr. Chavis said. "I already feel that this will not be the last summit."
Behind closed doors
Most of the summit is to be held behind closed doors. There was a public rally at West Baltimore's Enon Baptist Church last night, and a public town meeting is scheduled for tonight at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in East Baltimore.
The meeting of African-American leaders had been touted by Dr. Chavis and others as one of the top achievements in his brief tenure as head of the NAACP. No one else, they said, had been able to assemble a group of black leaders representing such a wide range of ideologies.
They also were proud that Dr. Chavis had defied critics who were angered that Minister Farrakhan was allowed to attend the first summit. The flap over Minister Farrakhan's presence produced what has become something of a rallying cry for Dr. Chavis:
"Never again will we allow force soutside the African-American community to attempt to dictate who we can meet with, where we can meet and what we can meet about. Never again."
But that defiance eventually contributed to Dr. Chavis' downfall as NAACP executive director.
Some board members said the NAACP's corporate and foundation donors were upset about the overtures to Minister Farrakhan, who they see as an anti-Semite. There also was concern over Dr. Chavis' handling of NAACP funds, because the group is laboring under a nearly $3 million deficit.
For his part, Dr. Chavis has blamed "outside" forces for pressuring the board to fire him.
Speaking on Black Entertainment Television's "Lead Story" program yesterday, he said: "I have considerable evidence that there were groups, organized groups, in New York City and Washington, D.C., some connected with right-wing Jewish groups, some even reactionary African-Americans [that] worked in coalition together to put pressure on the NAACP."
After firing Dr. Chavis on Saturday evening, the NAACP board decided to postpone the summit -- at least one held under its auspices.
"Dr. Chavis had done 90 percent of the work. It made no sense to go ahead if the man with the plan wasn't there," said Ben F. Andrews Jr., vice chairman of the NAACP board.
Summit to go forward
But shortly after NAACP officials announced that the summit was postponed, a sober Dr. Chavis vowed that it would move forward.
And he was true to his word. During brief remarks before yesterday's meeting, he cast himself as a martyr.
"I recall that my election [to the NAACP post] took place on Good Friday in 1993," he said. "Now there's been a crucifixion. But today we celebrate the resurrection."
Dr. Chavis -- who introduced himself as the "convener" of the National African-American Leadership Summit -- said being fired by the NAACP board has left him freer to speak his mind.
"I feel a little liberated right now," he said. "I do not have a straitjacket on. I'm going to speak and act in a way that is solely in the interests of the African-American community."
Support for Chavis
Many of the conferees used their introductory remarks to offer words of support for Dr. Chavis -- and to criticize the NAACP board for removing him.
"The NAACP needs to be torn down and reconstructed," said former Baltimore state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell III, the son of the late and legendary NAACP lobbyist Clarence M. Mitchell Jr.
He added that Dr. Chavis had "the spirit of the old NAACP that fought the struggle."
Minister Farrakhan did not speak directly to Dr. Chavis' battle with the NAACP board. Instead, he said, the goals of the leadership meeting -- to develop strategies to attack economic and social ills in black America -- are "bigger than any of us as personalities, bigger than any of our organizations."